Friday, March 5, 2010


I first visited Oudong, which is only forty or so kilometers north of the Capital in 2005. Oudong was the capital of Cambodia at various times between 1618 and 1866, but not much remains that would remind a visitor of this historical detail. Amongst all the decaying, renovated and newer stupas on the hills one site in particular stood out.
All that remained of this temple was a few walls and some giant stumps of columns, with the almost unrecognizable plinth and crossed legs of a formerly enormous Buddha statue. The columns brought the massive temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt to mind. In both places the columns seemed to stand strangely against the sky, with little hint that any had actually served a practical purpose of holding up a roof at some forgotten time before.

Although it looked somehow ancient, the Vihear Preah Ath Roes or “Vihara of the 18 cubit Buddha”, was actually only finished and dedicated in 1911 during King Sisowath’s reign. The area around Oudong mountain suffered heavy aerial bombardment during the 1970-75 civil war, from Cambodian Republican Forces and the US B52s and F16s that backed them up. Although at first I came to believe that this bombing had caused the destruction of the temple, after discussing the situation with locals I changed my mind. What they told me was that the pagoda at the bottom of the hill, close to the current car-park and restaurant area had been flattened by bombing. The temple with the big lonely columns had been dynamited by the Khmer Rouge forces later, in 1977.

Returning to the mountain in 2009, I was aware that some reconstruction had been going on. I braved the mid-April heat and wandered up to have a look. The 18 cubit Buddha had been completely rebuilt, a lot of work had been put into the walls, and the basic framework for a roof was up. I have to admit I preferred it the way it had been, but that is understandably not a sentiment shared by many people here. I may find derelict houses and rustic war ruins attractive, but others don’t need reminding. I’ll try and drop up to Oudong again soon and see how it is all progressing.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Monorom Hotel

This was one of the first large modern hotels built in Phnom Penh. It stands on Monivong Boulevard, not far from Central Market and the railway station. At the time it went up there was little development along what was to become one of the city’s most metropolitan and built up streets.
The photo of the “Khmer Rouge” troops passing by the hotel on April 17th 1975 poses some questions. The ”Artful Dodger” character out front is wearing some strange-looking bandoliers and has a certain jolly expression which seems very exaggerated. He certainly doesn’t have the usual stoic and mean expression that you usually see in pictures of KR soldiers, and the people in the truck look to me to be civilians. The flag flying from the truck is one which has often been identified as a Democratic Kampuchea flag, but I have rarely seen pictures of it actually being used.
The crowd to the left of the truck are mainly dressed in camouflage military fatigues, of the type worn by Lon Nol’s Republican forces. I understand that there was a certain amount of jubilance at first on the streets of Phnom Penh, but I ‘m surprised to see Republican soldiers celebrating. I thought they would have been too busy getting rid of their uniforms first, as they were the number one target for execution in days to come. .
When the capital was finally taken, it wasn’t by one unified army, but by several allied groups from almost autonomous zones of the country. Some confusion, and even a certain amount of fighting erupted between the various groups at first. In the first few hours of confusion, one particularly strange event occurred. Some people, perhaps students or military decided to join in. They dressed up as Khmer Rouge combatants, and paraded through the streets on trucks proclaiming victory. It’s not clear what their motives were, perhaps they thought they would just blend in and get on with things, but I doubt any of them got very far.
The first picture shows the Monorom in the early 1960s, the B&W is from April 17th 1975. The bottom two are more recent, as you can see it hasn't changed a lot other than the awning along the front.